Wrong, Wrong, All Wrong: Can You Take a Little Criticism?

Once when I was home from college, I argued with my sister about some point that I now forget. Of course, I think that I was right and that she was wrong. I do not remember what we argued about, but it was late at night and a prime time for having an emotional argument. I learned from that exchange that most people on the street are probably not ready to dispassionately vivisect personal opinions. At school, I pushed and poked ideas all the time, and one of the first things we learned to do at school was to separate ourselves from our ideas so that we could pursue truth independent of our preferences and prejudices. Sometimes hard-core intellectual discussion is a good way to pursue truth, and at other times it is a good way to make your sister cry.

“You are wrong” can be a stinging thing for some people to hear. “You are wrong” might challenge personal competency, personal worth, personal comfort about being right, and personal notions about truth. People are right about some things and wrong about other things; disagreements are most poignant when contrasted with common agreements between contending parties.

There are chiefly two things to say about what to do when someone tells you that you are wrong: 1. If you are offended, do not feel victimized by disagreement. The person challenging you may be trying to help you, but even if you are facing brutal criticism, self-proclaimed victimization hamstrings discussion. 2. Do not surrender everything when someone disproves you on one point of discussion. Judge the extent of your error or mistake, correct, and move on.

Hopefully my prescription is common-sense: I do not have anything particularly controversial today. There is plenty of time in the new year for that. I have found that things people deem “common-sense” are also things that they try to brush off. The things we hear most are often things that we most need to hear. I just recently completed a training course for my job, and some of my colleagues complained about how boring it was or how common-sense it was. I went through the training after they did, so their complaints were my first introduction to the training. At the time, I was not happy with the leadership team, so I more readily listened to my colleagues’ complaints. After I finished, I discovered that that which was “common-sense” was very helpful and instructive.

In life, we will disagree with others, sometimes in areas of life and death. We have to pursue the truth, and we will bump and collide with each other as we run in different and sometimes opposite directions. Taking criticism from an opponent is always an exercise in humility, and we always have to be careful about what comes from an opponent, but sometimes it can be more helpful than what comes from people who always agree with us and even refreshingly new.

Learning how to give criticism (and even to give it at all) is another matter, but taking it is the first step. I have taken my fair share of criticism and could certainly use more of the constructive variety. In sum, if we want to pursue truth well, we have to be able to give and take correction so as to escape deadly error.

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